In five weeks, Chicago will face its first runoff election for mayor. While Rahm Emanuel is the better known candidate, polls show a horse race. National interest groups are circling, declaring the race a referendum on the future of the Democratic Party. How did we get here, what’s the reality and what happens now?
Four years ago, Emanuel ran for mayor on a tough love message of confronting the city’s mounting challenges: a staggering deficit, rising crime, and an education system that no longer promised a brighter future to thousands of children. Chicago soared to new heights on the international stage under Mayor Daley, but by the end of his tenure a day of financial reckoning was approaching.
In 2010, I left the White House and followed Rahm Emanuel back home out of fear for my hometown if he didn’t win. His competitors came armed with platitudes about understanding the city better than him and attacks on his pugnacious style but without a hardheaded plan to make sure that Chicago didn’t go the way of Detroit.
His opponents duplicated that strategy in this campaign, while a number of groups parachuting into the city have also framed the race as an ideological test. Their assumptions seem misplaced. Chicagoans have never let ideological debates get in the way of results-driven practicality. And a firm commitment to achieving tangible progress rather than engaging in back and forths over philosophy best defines this mayor’s approach.
Despite the vitriol of the teachers union, Mayor Emanuel acted swiftly to make sure Chicago kids were no longer stuck with the shortest school day of any major city. He had the courage to tell parents when their kids’ schools had failed them past the point of redemption, knowing the potentially severe political consequences when he closed underattended and underperforming schools. Ninety-three percent of those students now attend higher-performing ones.
When an idea worked elsewhere, he wasn’t too proud to adopt it, from a new way to deploy patrol cars to reduce crime in the toughest neighborhoods to calling CEOs and convincing them to move their businesses to Chicago. Just as he eased taxes on small businesses across the city to incentivize them to hire more employees, he worked overtime to establish Chicago as a tech hub so that it can continue to compete with global commercial centers rather than fade into a city nostalgic for the past.
The mayor was ridiculed for issuing progress reports on his administration as some sort of self-congratulatory PR gimmick. But his page out of the McKinsey playbook to set and meet measurable governing benchmarks helped move Chicago out of the era of who sent ya.
Much has been written about Rahm’s “points on the board” strategy to build up a succession of quick policy wins as White House chief of staff. He went bigger as mayor, taking more political risks. He knew full well that addressing the toughest challenges facing Chicago all at once may not be good for his approval rating. But he did it all the same, because the city was living on borrowed time.
There’s been a hue and cry from a number of self-declared progressive groups that Emanuel has betrayed them. Yet he raised the minimum wage to $13 an hour—the second-highest in the country—and pushed legislators to legalize same-sex marriage statewide. By sheer force of will he wiped out numerous food deserts in underdeveloped areas, demanding grocery retailers offer fresh produce to residents who used to have to cross town. And his plan to give high school graduates with a B average free access to city colleges has been adopted nationally, to much fanfare from these same progressive organizations.
The best mayors are focused not on litigating ideological debates but on practical solutions that can improve the daily lives of their residents, from jobs to classrooms to snow plows.
Sometimes results got ahead of emotions. There are no doubt political leaders with a softer touch. But fear of upsetting any one constituency too often prevents our elected officials from making decisions for the broader good; the tough but necessary approach has guided this city for the past four years.
Though there are bound to be shock polls in the coming days suggesting a tight race, the tea leaves from last Tuesday’s results provide some encouragement. Emanuel won 35 of the city’s 50 wards, including a 2-1 plurality over his competitor, Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, in the city’s predominantly African-American wards. His opponents ran the easy political play in the first round, offering up quick promises without specifics. Voters will now face a clear choice about how they will deal with the reality of the big challenges the city still faces.
Under Mayor Emanuel, there’s been no withering in the City of Broad Shoulders. Five weeks from now, it should be clear that Chicagoans wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ben LaBolt is a founding partner of The Incite Agency. He previously served as communications director for Rahm Emanuel’s first campaign for mayor and as a spokesman for President Obama.